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Recently I had an opportunity to meet Richard Ross, a university professor and architectural photographer that has spent several years documenting youth correctional facilities across the nation. His book, Juvenile in Justice, visually documents the conditions of youth confinement. The photographs display archaic facilities with deplorable conditions. Moreover, the photographs reflect facilities that are no place for youth.

El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility

CJCJ, 2007

Richard’s photographs allow access to facilities that often close their doors to the public. The photographs are telling, presenting an otherwise invisible world filled with youth who are often viewed as a nuisance by society. Yet the photographs do not reflect the smell, the noise, and institutional feel that you observe walking through the front door. My colleagues and I at CJCJ have visited a number of youth correctional and detention facilities across the state and nation. We have observed leaky roofs, staff wearing stab proof vests, youth in isolation, student desks nailed to the floor, and much more. Do these conditions reflective an environment designed to promote rehabilitation? No. These facilities, built on a congregate care design, are relics of the past and remain as an impediment to local reform.

Congregate facilities have not been successful in providing youth with the prosocial skills that are necessary to fully engage with their communities. This is not really shocking news. Correctional facilities are artificial environments that do not allow youth to practice newly acquired skills in situations relevant to the community that they will inevitably be returning to. These youth are vulnerable and voiceless in these institutions, yet they will return to our communities and how we treat them now matters.

Further, as discussed above and seen in Richard’s photographs, the facilities are often run down and designed in a punitive nature. The architectural design of these correctional institutions often mirror adult prisons that are designed to emphasize punishment and control rather than growth and rehabilitation. There is increasing evidence of the brutality that defines these structures despite attempts to reform through litigation and new leadership.

If congregate facilities are a thing of the past, then what direction should our justice system be moving?

As we progress into a 21st century approach to juvenile justice, we need to recognize past failures and focus energy on cultivating new interventions that promote better outcomes for youth. Maintaining youth in the community where they and their families can access the necessary services to be successful creates a framework where we recognize youth as assets rather than delinquents. Youth served in the community have access to services and funding streams that are not available to confined youth. By maximizing available resources justice stakeholders and community-based organizations can develop tailored services that address a youth’s specific needs. This is the framework of the 21st century.